For the first 20 years of your life, you were told what to learn, how to learn it — and then were graded on your learning capability.
Then you got a job or started your own business, and now you have little or no guidance to direct your learning.
Perhaps you got lucky and you landed a job at a company that values professional and personal development. Maybe you have a personal learning and development plan as part of the work that you do.
Unfortunately, not everyone has this luxury.
Many digital marketers are left to their own devices to figure out what they need to learn to develop their professional skills in order to advance their career.
For digital marketers who want to improve their skills online, the choices are endless. In the age of the internet, information is a commodity. You can sign up, download, and attend millions of courses and lessons, for free, at the click of a button.
So, the challenge for a dedicated learner isn't finding or getting access to the content, or even the price of the content, it’s choosing where and how to learn in order to grow.
That's why many digital marketers join peer-to-peer learning communities and professional membership organizations.
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What I learned about learning when I was hanging out at the park
A while back I was playing at the local park with my step-son, Paddy, when he tried out the monkey bars for the first time.
He tried a few times but he couldn’t get past the first rung. He kept falling off before even attempting to reach for the second rung. It was clear to me that he couldn’t quite figure out the technique required to move forward.
A few moments later, a slightly older girl appeared on the scene. She was much more confident and managed the monkey bars without any hesitation.
As Paddy watched the older girl effortlessly make her way across the five rungs, he knew at that moment that he could do it.
It was one of those special moments of self-awareness as I watched Paddy shifting from feeling frustrated, defeated, and upset about failing, to feeling confident, believing in himself and celebrating his success when he made it to the end.
This all took place in just a few minutes.
Let's take a closer look at the learning dynamic between Paddy, the girl, and the monkey bars.
Paddy, who had several failed attempts, observed the older girl on the monkey bars and learned two things. First, that it was possible to go all the way to the end of the five rungs, and second, he learned the technique required to do it. He now had a teacher, or mentor, to show him how.
The difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help is called the “zone of proximal development” or ZPD.
The ZPD for Paddy was to go from not being able to do the monkey bars, to getting to the end successfully. In this case the zone was identified, and then a ‘mentor’ arrived to help coach and assist him through the gap to the point where he could do it.
This technique for learning is also referred to as "scaffolding." This is where the teacher supports and helps you while you learn something until you reach the point where you can do it successfully with minimal assistance.
Then, they remove the scaffolding so you can perform the activity on your own.
We learn best when we are heavily involved in our own learning
What can we learn from Paddy’s story?
First, the slightly older girl was not an expert. She only knew a little more than Paddy did. For all we know, a few weeks ago the girl might not have been able to do the monkey bars at all.
Perhaps more importantly, it wouldn’t be the same learning experience if Paddy had observed me doing the monkey bars. Regardless of whether I can do it or not, I’m a lot older and stronger and Paddy can't relate to me as an adult.
Second, Paddy was heavily involved in his own learning. He wasn’t told how to do the monkey bars. He observed, tried, failed, and tried again.
In Range, David Epstein writes “Frustration is not a sign you aren't learning, but ease is.” Epstein also shows that repetition is less important than the struggle, and that learning slowly is part of the journey: “It is difficult to accept that the best learning road is slow, and that doing poorly now is essential for better performance later.”
Similarly, Paddy struggled through the process, which in turn strengthened the learning process for him.
Today, we are far too concerned about getting the answer quickly, and getting a head start, that we sacrifice our own learning as a result.
Most people I know would find this narrative challenging. They want their knowledge fast — and want learning to happen instantly ‘before-their-eyes.’
Third, Paddy built self-belief and confidence by seeing someone else achieve it first, and from observing someone very close to his stage in development.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Paddy would probably have learned the monkey bars himself eventually, without help. But it would have taken him a lot longer.
We shouldn’t only consider what we are capable of on our own; just like Paddy, we learn best when we are in a social setting: a learning environment. Humans are social creatures, and our learning is enhanced when we share the process with others.
Peer-to-peer learning and the benefit of learning in groups
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
The caveat here is that the student has to actually put the effort in. There’s a lot of persistence and patience required for this type of learning to be successful. The ‘teacher’ doesn’t give you the answers, and you must be heavily involved in your learning.
With a shift in mindset that prioritizes this type of growth, you start to see learning opportunities everywhere you look.
Every time someone asks a question or asks for help...
How do I…?
Why can’t I…?
Where is the…?
Where can I find…?
What should I do…?
Who can help me…?
What’s the best way to…?”
...this is the ZPD in practice.
For every question that’s asked, someone somewhere has an answer. They do not have to be an expert – they just need to know a little more than you do about that specific area or topic.
Someone provides the scaffolding for you, so you can learn, achieve, and go on to do it yourself – the next thing you know, just like the young girl in the story, you’re teaching it to someone else!
This is what’s really at the heart of peer-to-peer learning – learning from other people within your own ZPD.
Becoming a teacher and the three stages of learning
“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” - Bill Gates
In peer-to-peer learning environments, you are both the student and the teacher simultaneously.
It’s important for us to recognize and identify when someone needs help and is in our ZPD. This helps us understand the importance of asking and answering questions – and everyone benefits as a result.
You may feel that asking a question, or answering one, is relatively insignificant, but it’s very powerful. Especially when you take a longer-term perspective.
You ask a question, close a small gap, become more confident, ask another question, close another small gap, help someone else with a problem or question, close a small gap, and so on.
The group setting is much more challenging and rewarding than learning in isolation because the students around you challenge you, pushing you to improve faster.
In short, it’s a very effective and efficient way of learning.
Of course, the model only works if everyone is willing to share what they know to help others.
You might be thinking that you don't have time to teach or give to others, that you are only interested in learning. However, this is a limitation in understanding how you improve and develop as a learner.
There are three levels of learning — the study, the practice, and teaching. Indeed, teaching itself is a form of learning. Teaching isn't just about sharing our knowledge; it’s really the pinnacle of our own learning.
Teaching in online peer-to-peer environments is when you will be challenged the most by others, which in turn helps you to solidify your ideas, improve how you communicate them, and test your convictions.
Oftentimes it’s only when we are preparing to teach a topic that we begin to realize that we don’t know as much as we thought we did.
Teaching highlights the gaps in our knowledge and forces us to create a complete story and narrative around our knowledge.
Joining a peer-to-peer learning community so you can teach and share your knowledge may be exactly what you need to do to improve your own professional skills.
A part of something bigger than yourself
“Part of my joy in learning is that it puts me in a position to teach; nothing however outstanding and however helpful, will ever give me any pleasure if the knowledge is to be for my benefit alone” - Seneca, Letter VI
You’re probably already a member of a few communities for work and leisure. Why did you join them?
To connect with like minded people with a shared philosophy?
To be around people you have something in common with?
To get support from people who understand what you are trying to achieve?
To help others, share your knowledge, and give back?
It’s human nature to seek a community that you enjoy being a part of and where you can find peer support, recognition, and acknowledgment.
When it comes to the workplace, some organizations are great at fostering learning and knowledge sharing amongst teams, but many employees are simply not getting what they need at work.
That’s when we look for something else — peer-to-peer learning communities with a culture we fit into, a shared vision we believe in, great leadership that puts our learning first, and a mission that makes us feel like we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
There are other benefits, too:
Objective input from people that you do not work with directly — and even from outside your industry
Expansion of your network
Awareness of trends and new developments
Safety to discuss and share ideas
How to get started with online learning
With hundreds of online peer-to-peer learning communities available to you, you can’t contribute to them all.
Here are a few tips to help you make better choices and get started on the right foot:
Get clear on what you want to learn and why
Be prepared to share and teach to get the most from a learning community
Involve your leadership in your learning: how they can support you and how your development benefits the organization
Put the time into finding a peer-to-peer learning community where you feel confident being yourself
Vet and choose carefully who you will spend your time with
Put in the effort to foster relationships and shape the culture
Make time each day for personal and professional development
Seek out mentorship: Someone you trust that can help shape and direct your learning
Ask for help, embrace collaboration, and don’t feel like you have to do everything on your own
Recognize when it’s time for you to move on to a new learning challenge
If you’re looking for a great place to start, head over to the IMPACT Elite Facebook group, where almost 6000 digital marketers are nerding out with each other.
Taking responsibility for your own learning
“Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those whom you are capable of improving” - Seneca, Letter VII
Every single one of us is responsible for our own learning, regardless of whether we run our own business or are an employee in a larger organization.
Each day you should be striving to push yourself out of your comfort zone to learn something new and recognizing your own areas of development.
Once we leave school we can no longer expect others to focus on our learning. Our learning becomes self-directed, and we are fully responsible for it.
When you leave formal education, you are no longer part of a group of people all learning the same thing at the same time. There is no curriculum and there are no prearranged tests, assessments, or exam results. There’s nothing to tell you that your learning is right or wrong.
Your learning is dynamic and fluid, and this is why the environment you place yourself in as a digital marketer becomes crucial for your development. The key differentials will be what you learn, the rate at which you learn it, and how you apply that learning.
There are three groups of people that we all need in our lives to help us improve —people that are better than us that we can learn from, people that are equal to us that can challenge us, and people who want to learn what we can teach.
You are capable of a lot more when you are surrounded by other people that you can learn from and teach. This is especially true if you are lacking guidance and mentorship in your current role.
Perhaps it's time for you to embrace peer-to-peer learning and find the people that you want to spend time learning with?